So you work for a corporation but are part of a community. Doing something controversial? Have lots of internal stakeholders with conflicting needs? Changing course in a way that makes people suspicious or concerned? Write an FAQ! No, really!

Do it not just for the FAQ itself, but for the process of aligning everyone behind a single, open strategy. If you can answer the hard questions publicly, honestly, and confidently, you’ll foster trust and build good will even when your audience does not hear the exact answers they want. What’s more, the feedback will give you the input you need to correct any errors you have in fact made.

In this talk, we’ll look at how to use an FAQ as tool and an excuse to:

  • Organize the effort.
  • Force decision makers and leaders to decide on goals, craft a coherent strategy, and understand and accept the tradeoffs.
  • Internally sell transparency and scrupulous honesty as essential to success.
  • Help the legal team be a partner, instead of just saying “no”.
  • Simplify and accelerate communications and make the Marketing Department an ally.

Learning from history

I’ll be using a bit of FLOSS history to illustrate these points – Sun’s Open Source Java Initiative.

Java wasn’t always Free Software. By 2005, Sun was making a lot of money with its staunchly proprietary Java platform. Richard Stallman called it a seductive “trap”. Under pressure from FLOSS community leaders to open source Java and turn it into a compelling example of the new model, Sun listened.

Those of us on the Java team were just as surprised as the rest of the software world by the announcement. Immediately, the questions started pouring in: Which license? How to encourage and manage contributions? What happens to the brand, and to Java’s “Write Once, Run Anywhere” compatibility promise? How does Sun continue to make money with Java, when the code is out there for anyone to use without paying a fee?

Sun didn’t know the answers. And these questions were in the minds of Sun’s customers, competitors, and knowledgeable FLOSS leaders. We needed a way to:

  • Answer the hard questions consistently and in one place so everyone would know.
  • Get the whole company on board, including management, lawyers, salespeople, engineers, and marketing personnel.
  • Communicate the answers successfully to diverse internal and external audiences. o Convince skeptics on both sides that this initiative would succeed in future-proofing Java’s business while keeping the platform relevant and exciting.

Thus was born the “Open Source Java FAQ”, which was inspired by an earlier FAQ done for the Debian community, and grew to 200 questions. It would prove to be a key tool in solving these problems.


FOSS Backstage 2021